Reformed Theology at Odds with Dispensationalism

In his excellent book on eschatology Cornelis Venema spends some time evaluating and critiquing dispensationalism from a Reformed and biblical perspective.  Reformed theology is at odds with dispensationalism in several ways.  One of the major differences is the understanding of promise/fulfillment and type/reality between the Old and New Testaments.  There is much more to the discussion, of course, but here are a few helpful paragraphs of Venema to explain this difference.

“Perhaps the most telling evidence against the dispensationalistic hermeneutic is to be found in the book of Hebrews.  The message of the book of Hebrews is, if I may speak anachronistically, a compelling rebuttal of Dispensationalism.  Whereas the book of Hebrews is one sustained argument for the finality, richness, and completion of all the Lord’s covenant words and works in the new covenant that is in Christ, Dispensationalism wants to preserve the old arrangements intact for Israel, arrangements which will be reinstituted in the period of the millennial kingdom.

However, this would be tantamount to going back to what has been surpassed in the new covenant in Christ, reverting to arrangements that have been rendered obsolete and superfluous because their reality has been realized in the provisions of the new covenant.  The Mediator of this new covenant, Christ, is the fulfillment of all the Lord’s promises to his people.  Thus, to the writer to the Hebrews, any reversion to the old covenant types and ceremonies would be an unacceptable departure from the realities of the new covenant in preference for the shadows of the old.

Though it may seem too severe to some, no other judgment is permitted us respecting the system of biblical interpretation known as Dispensationalism: it represents a continued attachment to the shadows and ceremonies of the old covenant dispensation and also a failure to appreciate properly the finality of the new covenant.  Its doctrine of a literal hermeneutic proves not to be literal in the proper sense of the term.  Rather than reading the New Testament ‘according to the letter,’ Dispensationalism reads the New Testament through the lens of its insistence upon a radical separation between Israel and the church” (p. 294-5).

Wright, Reformation, and Gospel

The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ I’ve found Cornelis Venema’s The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ to be a great Reformed resource for interacting with recent revisions of justification as found in the New Perspectives on Paul.  Venema’s chapter describing N. T. Wright’s perspective on Paul is especially helpful, clear, and fair.  As I read this chapter (5), I tried to capture the main points by writing marginal notes.  I’m going to put those marginal notes below along with a summary of Venema’s comments, which I hope is beneficial for our readers.  I strongly recommend getting this book and reading the chapter; these points obviously need to be explained more than I do here.

What are some of the main points of N. T. Wright’s perspective on Paul?

1) First-century Judaism was not legalistic.  Wright’s perspective is that Paul was not concerned about Jewish legalism because Judaism in the first century wasn’t really legalistic.  Wright says it this way: “The tradition of Pauline interpretation has manufactured a false Paul by manufacturing a false Judaism for him to oppose.”   One implication of this perspective of Wright is that the Reformers and the Reformed Confessions are completely wrong in their interpretation of Paul, works, the law, faith, and justification.

2) Paul was not opposing legalism, but nationalism.  Paul’s problem with Judaism was not ‘works-righteousness’ or ‘legalism,’ but perverted and prideful nationalism.  For Paul, Wright says, the law doesn’t have to do with legalism, but national privilege of which the Jews became proud.  One implication here is that the Reformers and the Reformed Confessions are wrong when they talk about legalism, antinomianism, justification, and Christian liberty.

3) The gospel is not primarily about salvation of sinners.  Instead, for Wright, the gospel is about who is Lord.  The principle message of the gospel is that Jesus is Lord and King who gained a victory in the cross and resurrection.  But the gospel does not really have to do with how to be saved, or how to find favor with God.  That, in Wright’s perspective, distorts and narrows the gospel into individualism.  One implication here is that the Reformers and Reformed Confessions are mistaken when they say the gospel has to do with a sinner being saved from sin, God’s wrath, and hell.

4) Justification is not about soteriology, but ecclesiology.  In other words, Wright says that Paul’s doctrine of justification doesn’t have much to do with being accepted by God.  Rather, justification is about who belongs to “the community of the true people of God.”  “Justification,” Wright notes, “is not a matter of how someone enters the community of the true people of God, but of how you tell who belongs to that community.”  Again, one implication here is that the Reformed and confessional discussions of justification as a judicial act of God’s grace alone through faith alone are totally misreading Paul and therefore incorrect.  In fact, Wright clearly says that the Reformation tradition turned the doctrine of justification “into its opposite.”

5) God’s righteousness is not something he can give to his people.  Wright’s view is that “the righteousness of God” means only that God is faithful to his promises, that he is trustworthy.  Wright denies that the righteousness of God can be credited or imputed to the account of a sinner.  Wright doesn’t deny that there is some forensic aspect to “the righteousness of God,” but he does deny imputation.  One implication here is that the Reformers and Reformed Confessions are wrong when they talk about imputation (i.e. our sins being imputed to Christ and his righteousness being imputed to us).

6) Faith is a badge of membership, not an instrument that receives a gift from God.  The nationalistic Jews saw the works of the law as something that distinguished them from Gentiles and thus Gentiles were excluded from the covenant community, in Wright’s perspective.  However, since Christ has come, the only badge of belonging to the covenant community is faith.   This of course goes against the grain of the Reformers and the Reformed confessions, which explain that saving faith is an instrument that receives God’s free gift of righteousness and shows itself by good works.

7) Substitutionary atonement isn’t overly important.  For Wright, the main point of Christ’s death and resurrection was a fulfillment of Israel’s exile and restoration, but not necessarily a substitutionary atonement for condemned sinners.  Christ’s death and resurrection are the means whereby the promise of the covenant is extended to God’s people worldwide, but not necessarily a propitiative, expiative, and penal substitution through which the curse was removed for sinners.  Since Wright’s definitions of justification and faith aren’t primarily about salvation from sin, so his discussion of Christ’s death and resurrection isn’t primarily about salvation from sin.  Obviously, the Reformers and the Reformed confessions very much stress substitutionary atonement.

All of this information is found in chapter five of Venema’s book, The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ.  I’ve edited it to keep it brief, but again, I recommend reading it for yourself.  I trust the perceptive reader will now at least begin to understand why confessional Reformed, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Lutheran churches have strongly spoken out against the New Perspectives on Paul and N. T. Wright’s revision of these key Christian doctrines.  N. T. Wright’s views are critical of and contrary to Reformation doctrine.  One cannot hold to the truths of the Reformation and to Wright’s revisions; it is logically impossible.  Both cannot be right.

And as our regular readers know, I’m with the Reformers and the Reformed confessions.  I believe they are much closer to Paul’s teaching than that of the NPP and N. T. Wright.  Venema’s book has been helpful for me in this area.  The Gospel of Free Acceptance In Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006).

rev shane lems

Sola Fide: The Only Source of God-Pleasing Obedience

Here are some great and comforting words by Cornelis Venema on faith alone (sola fide) and Christian obedience.

“For the Reformers, ‘faith alone,’ far from being detrimental to the Christian life of good works, is the only basis and source of Christian obedience.  To place works before justification, as though they played a role in obtaining God’s acceptance, alters the character of the Christian’s life of obedience.  Rather than good works being the fruits of thankfulness, which are born out of the grateful awareness of the believer’s acceptance by God, they are regarded as a means to obtain favor with God.  If works are performed to obtain God’s favor, however, they are no longer performed in good faith.  They become corrupted by a self-seeking desire to curry favor with God, or to wrest from God a reluctant acceptance and forgiveness.”

“According to the Reformers, the Christian’s freedom is a freedom to obey God, not a freedom to sin or continue in disobedience.  However, the obedience of faith is not constrained by a fear of punishment or falling into disfavor with God.  Rather, it is a joyful delight in God and his will, which springs from an awareness of God’s undeserved favor in Christ.”

“When justification undergirds the believer’s sanctification, Christian obedience is no longer colored by an anxious uncertainty regarding God’s grace.  Calvin expresses this point in his comments on James and Paul, when he insists that we should not place good works, which are the inevitable effect of true faith, before faith, which is the only cause of good works.  Unless believers are acceptable to God by faith in Christ, it is not possible for their works to be pleasing to him.  At the same time, it is impossible for those who know the grace of free justification and who are united to Christ by faith, not to be renewed in good works.”

I suppose these paragraphs might be a helpful commentary on Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 91 and Westminster Confession of Faith 16:1-2.

The above quotes are found on pages 85-86 of The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ by Cornelis Venema.

shane lems

The Reformers and Faith Alone


“To express the unique suitability of faith to receive the gift of free justification, the Reformers used a variety of expressions.  Calvin, for example, spoke of faith as an ’empty vessel’ in order to stress its character as a receptacle that brings nothing to God but receives all things from him.  Luther used the striking analogy of a ring that clasps a jewel; faith has no value of itself, but clasps the jewel that is Christ and his righteousness.”

“Calvin also remarked that, in a manner of speaking, faith is a ‘passive thing,’ because it is the cessation of all working to obtain favour and acceptance with God in order to rest in a favour freely given in Christ.  What makes faith a suitable instrument for the reception of free justification is that it is marked by a humble acknowledgement that all honour in salvation belongs to God in Christ.”

“As a receptive and passive acknowledgement of the sheer graciousness of free justification, faith is an act of trustful acceptance of what God freely grants believers in Christ.  When believers accept the free gift of justification by faith, they look away from themselves and focus their attention upon Christ who is their righteousness.”

As usual, Cornelis Venema is clear and right on.  I highly recommend this book, Getting the Gospel Right: Assessing the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul.  (The above quotes were from pages 17-18.)

shane lems

Young Children at the Lord’s Table?

Herman Bavinck gives some biblical reasons why Reformed/Presbyterian confessional churches do not allow infants to partake of the Lord’s Supper.  He gives quite a few different biblical reasons, but I want to highlight only a few of them (note – these are my numbers to make it easier to read, though Bavinck had more than these numbers and in different order).

1) In 1 Cor 10 & 11, Paul “leaves no other impression than that only self-conscious adult persons took part in the Supper.”  In other words, partaking involves at least some cognition as to what the Supper is all about.  In my terms, Paul’s words like “examine” and “discern” assume the participants are old enough to consider the main truths of Christ’s work for sinners.  Regardless whether one thinks “discerning the body” means Christ or the church (though I believe the context of 1 Cor 11.29 demands soma refers to Christ’s body/blood), the participle (discerning) implies more than elementary cognitive skills.  Young children can neither examine themselves nor discern Christ’s body.

2) “Withholding the Lord’s Supper from the children does not deprive them of any benefit of the covenant of grace.”  This is huge.  I’ve heard some say “Why excommunicate our kids from the covenant by not letting them partake of the covenant meal?”  Answer: we baptize the children, says Bavinck, which is a sign and seal that they were born into the covenant of grace (1 Cor 7.14).  “But things are different with the Lord’s Supper.  Those who administer baptism to children but not the Lord’s Supper acknowledge that they are in the covenant and share in all its benefits.  They merely withhold from them a particular manner in which the same benefits are signed and sealed, since this manner is not suited to their age.  The Lord’s Supper, after all, does not confer a single benefit that is not by faith granted through the Word and through baptism.” 

Above quotes from Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics IV.583-4.

Though not in explicitly covenantal terms, many early church fathers also interpreted Paul to be writing to those  a bit older, those able to understand the Creed, repent of their sins, and renounce the devil (i.e. Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, and so on).  As another historical note, the Heidelberg Catechism (specifically in Q/A 81) and the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q/A 171) also take for granted that the recipient of the Supper is able to examine themselves, repent, and believe.  For a much expanded discussion of this topic along the lines that Bavinck argues, see Cornelis Venema’s fine work, Children at the Lord’s Table?

shane lems

sunnyside wa